Beautiful Brooklyn

Already in the 19th century, New Yorkers were not sure they wanted to live in the hustle of Wall street. Just across the East river, there was this beautiful place, close and far enough to offer peaceful and luxurious living, Brooklyn Heights.

Aitken place

Aitken place

Joralemon street

Joralemon street

Brooklyn had been inhabited centuries ago by the Native tribes, such as the Lenape. When the Dutch arrived, they settled in various little villages, one of which was named Breuckelen, and it gave the borough its final name. In the 19th century, as the closest piece of land to Wall street, it started being built with townhouses and mansions. The ferry service and the Navy Yard (located at present day DUMBO and Wallabout bay) quickly made Brooklyn part of New York.

Henry street

Henry street

Brooklyn Heights has been, since the beginning, a place to hide and a place to be. The barons of downtown Manhattan started building their beautiful houses there, and by the way, naming the streets after themselves. This gave us pretty much of the current local geography of the neighborhood, with Hicks, Pierrepont or Remsen streets. But in the north, you’ll find street names like Cranberry, Willow and Pineapple. That’s because an old lady living in the neighborhood thought this name posting was pretentious, so she managed to introduce some non-aristocratic names on the map. Namely, fruits. They still remain in place today.

L1050363

Posted in Neighborhoods, Stories from the city | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Roosevelt Island

In the middle of East River, by the Queensboro bridge, lies the hidden side of NYC. It is a very thin stretch of land, 240 m large and 3 km long, facing Midtown, and having somehow reflected New York City’s dark side over the ages.

Roosevelt Island cable vista

I believe nowhere you’ll find such a bleak picture of this almost-never-mentioned in guides place. After all, it’s got just a bunch of would-be luxurious rental buildings, a Japanese and Italian restaurants, a little shuttle crisscrossing its only street all day long, and a tiny park; what is there to say about this piece of land barely connected to the big island?

From a purely sociologically point of view, it would be interesting to investigate what big cities which are crossed by rivers do with their small islands, if they happen to have one. In Paris, Île de la Cité, the craddle of the city’s history, was an important military, religious and royal centre, and remains today a masterpiece of tourist attractions and a very expensive place to live. Prague has the Strelecky Ostrov, with its parties and its shooting training ground through the 19th century; today it is a blissful garden in the middle of the city’s historical district. Montreal, itself an island, like Manhattan, has the little Île des Sœurs, among other tiny islands, which has been a religious haven until its closeness to the city center unleashed massive urbanization.

So what is the story of Roosevelt Island? It used to be called Manning Island, after the guy who purchased this piece of land back in the 17th century; his family built one of the “oldest” dwellings still remaining in New York, the Blackwell house (1796), today a sad and lonely piece among the surrounding metal and glass constructions.

Blackwell house

But then the already booming City of New York bought this island in 1828, and built a prison there. Followed a penitentiary hospital, a “Lunatic Asylum”, a workhouse for the bad guys and a smallpox hospital. And for the next hundred years, this place accumulated the bad, the mad and the sick, trying to clean a bit Manhattan of it, if that was ever possible. The hospital served not only the prisoners, but also the poor from New York. The Queensboro bridge was built at the turn of the 20th century, but it didn’t provide access to the undesirable on the island. Then, just before WWII, the prison was getting overcrowded, and another island – Rikers – was to take the relay with the inmates. The Blackwell lighthouse was one of the works completed by the convicts, remaining on the northern tip of the island.

Blackwell lighthouse

The second half of the century and the booming urbanization tried to overcome the sad history of this land; various committees and corporations endeavoured into building some profitable square meters on the island, already connected to Manhattan with a cable tramway. After all, it was facing the famous building of the United Nations, and an already posh Upper East Side. It was named for some time Welfare Island, to help erase a dirty past; then Roosevelt in the 1970s, until today.

Nowadays Roosevelt Island is a desolate sleepy neighborhood, quite expensive though, home to many UN officials and a few remaining rent-stabilised dwellers. Its only street has a couple of bare-necessities shops, and a hybrid bus helps people move back and forth to the metro station, deep under, linking the island to Manhattan and Queens. An eerie boardwalk unveils amazing views over the Astoria power plant erected on the east side of the river. But even today, you cannot walk here from Manhattan, as if the ghosts of the prisoners and the sick still haunted the place; and unlike other big cities’ islands, Roosevelt won’t soon deserve its place in tourist guides.

Astoria II

Posted in Neighborhoods, Stories from the city | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ale power

In the days of old, New York used to be called New Amsterdam, and it was a crazy trading port where all adventurers discovering the new world unleashed their energies and found solace in one of the first breweries in town. There were three as a start, in the middle of the 17th century, and their number reached more than a hundred as american pioneers from the biggest brewing nations, Germany, Ireland, UK, joined the new nation. The NYTimes tells the tale of hop and malt along the ages in the New York area: the “liquid bread” production in the area was the biggest in America by mid-nineteen century. At that time Brooklyn breweries were blooming, as water from Long Island was purer and abundant. Beer is indeed bound to water: the purity of the later is paramount, as Germans duly noted when they proclaimed one of the most enduring laws in history, Reinheitsgebot. Thus NY beer making thrived for more than two hundred years, before gently bowing to the rising Midwest mass brewing and reach a historic low in the 1970s. By then, the last New York brewery closed (note this didn’t happen through prohibition), before the notable revival of our age.

Indeed, what happened to food in general afflicted beer: faceless, tasteless mass production, in cans, with ads, loads of them, and efficiency ruled for decades, before people realised the bad taste. All indicators were negative in the 1980s: high concentration, with the ten biggest brewers doing nearly 94% of the brewing, cans and bottles overtaking draught beer by a similar proportion, and brands like Coors and Pabst booming (I took the numbers from an excellent article on beer statistics across the ages). Luckily you cannot fool people for too long, especially on such a subject, and by the turning of the century micro-breweries and inventive beer entrepreneurs were on the rise again.

In our days, where mass production and industrial efficiency are still the general rule, diversity has never been so striking, and small is beautiful comes back in fashion, especially when it comes to brews. Craft beer overtakes wine as the fancy drink in NYC, and beer gardens selling unique ales, or restaurants with a stunning choice of brews isn’t a rare sight.

Chicory Ale

In Brooklyn, beer has its temple: the Brooklyn Brewery. Set up in the 1980s in North Williamsburg by two white collar visionnaires, it has become a great success story and the proof that American beer is so much more than Bud. Which is hardly a beer.

Brooklyn brewery entrance

Brooklyn brewery lagers

Brooklyn brewery tasting room logo

Many other places boast an amazing choice of ales: the Radegast, a beerhall of its stature, is a good example of the beer cult, with its high wooden and glass ceilings and Prague-style ambiance, hidden in North Williamsburg backyard. Bearded locals overtaking the long bar, boasting a mid-nineteen century hairdo style, match perfectly this beer revival. Or check the Kent Ale House, with a stunning choice of draughts, changing as often as a capricious chef would change the daily menu, and with knowledgeable barmen who would talk beer flavors as easily as a sommelier would praise his wine list.

Kent Ale menu

As a conclusion, ale power revival is a good sign of going local, getting (probably) more sustainable, putting away the everlasting price to quantity equation. But ales who thrived in the perfect climate of New York four centuries ago, and come back in force today, are fragile, and dependent on how nature evolves, and the long term outlook isn’t bright. Climate change affects beer, and water is not a finite resource. If we don’t take action, droughts may put a lasting end to draughts for real.

Thanks to Lorcan who inspired the subject of this post!

Posted in Stories from the city | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Village belt

Nestled between Midtown and the Financial district, lies one of the best parts of New York: the West, Greenwich and East Village, stretching from the Hudson to the East River. Low and old buildings with tree lined streets have attracted an impressive array of bars, cafes and European boutiques as well as all sorts of galleries, record shops and varied -purpose ventures. It is one of the rare places where some streets are still covered with cobble stones, and where, for just a moment, you would forget you’re in America.

The real, one and only would of course be Greenwich – tiny suburb of historical New York and not part of it before the end 19th century. As for the West Village, real estate agents have probably invented the concept, to name the area most spared of the shopping and restaurant frenzy currently raving in Greenwich. And I would add to the Village list the East one: despite the rough separation by the Broadway beat, it is also strangely peaceful, low lying for the best part of it, easy-going and still a tiny bit subversive.

So there is this belt, breathing between the high-rise battle of Mid- and Downtown, where every self-respecting visitor should spend much more time than with the over-marketed neighbors in the north of the city.

On the western tip, the tranquil neighborhood just below 14th street boasts with superb but sober houses, in red brick and beautiful doors. The cobblestoned streets offer an eerie view to the Hudson river. There is no other reason to come here: apart the houses, there is nearly nothing. But the streets offer this serene, placid feeling, away from all the madness of the city. Maybe the best spot to wander and to think, undisturbed by no one.

Cobblestones

Village houses

Despite this bourgeois feel, the Village has been home to the most brilliant and subversive artistic movement in the last century, the Beat Generation. Since way before the 1950s, weird artists already transformed farms into theaters, like the Cherry Lane, on the most amazing Commerce street. This tiny strip in the heart of the west Greenwich has no shops on it, and is actually a semi circle. Probably the best street in New York.

Cherry lane

Going towards the heart of Greenwich, the most European savors spring to life on shop-laden rows. Whatever happens in the international relations scene, love or hate, Europe is the thing, the true source of gourmet-fashion-beauty pinnacle.

Le Gigot

The village feel is amazing. On some roads, no sight whatsoever can be found of the New York that we know.

Church

But the peaceful sights are regrettably interrupted by the long avenue strips crossing from south to north all areas of the city. You cannot remain lost for a long time; walking on any street will eventually bring you on one of them, bustling roads bringing a great rush of life into the observer, and new energy to carry on the city adventure.

6th avenue

Posted in Neighborhoods, Stories from the city | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Le match

Twenty years in Paris leave a deep mark, and make you judge all things foreign with a solid dose of Parisianism. This is what happened to NYC when I arrived. Comparing, weighing, contrasting everything with the us et coutumes inside the peripherique. This little post is about that activity of mine, and the resulting match between the two cities. No winner trophy would be awarded though, as it is an everlasting contest.

*****

Paris vs. New York.. J’y ai rapidement pensé. 20 ans à tenir coûte que coûte à l’intérieur du périf, ça laisse des marques.

Alors, on y va.

On commence par le matin. Le café. Les cafés parisiens ont une vieille et respectueuse gloire.. mais les new-yorkais semblent passer beaucoup plus de temps dans les leurs, y mettent plus de zèle, plus d’attention, ça frise la prière dans certains coffeeshops. Et l’expresso, quand on en veut un, y est plus serré, avec une matière première plus soigneusement sélectionnée (que le classique café Richard, souvent imbuvable). Mais côté ambiance, les longs tabliers noirs, les regards affairés, les zincs, les croissants qui trainent, les poivrots au demi tôt le matin, des journaux gras, le tout sur un air de RTL, ça n’a pas de prix. La concentration extrême d’applebooks et de barbes chèrement entretenues à Williamsburg n’arrive que loin derrière, en valeur ajoutée au café du matin. Résultat: on commence à égalité.

Les rues. Classe et soigneusement lavées à Paris, avant et après le marché, quand il faut ou quand il pleut, Delanoë est un accro à la propreté. Rien de traine, peu de choses laissées au hasard et pour pas longtemps (si, si, je vous assure). New York, le lavage des trottoirs, ça connaît pas. Le vent, le pauvre, s’en charge quand il est de service. NYC zéro, Paris un.

Les restos. Alors là, surprise générale, on a plus de chances de bien manger ici qu’à Paris. Le vin de la maison est souvent très buvable, la salade n’est pas de sachet, l’atmosphère est soignée. Normal: la concurrence est extrême, le passé pas glorieux, et ça paie: à NYC, on trouve de tout, ou presque, et c’est souvent très très bon. NYC un, Paris…..

Les grands magasins. PPR et les autres ont fait fort, et Paris a les meilleurs department stores au monde. A NYC, ça date, c’est cheap, c’est mal organisé, ça fait beaucoup de pub et ça va pas très loin. Macy’s est un pur produit marketing, et ça vaut même pas le détour. Les Galeries me manquent. Le Printemps me manque. Paris pourrait presque scorer double grâce à l’unique BHV (alliage inestimable de Home Depot et Sachs 5th Avenue) qui hélas s’en va bientôt.

Les gens?.. Oui, ceux qu’on croise dans la rue, dans le métro, dans les restos: à NYC, ça semble un peu moins crispé, moins de regards tordus, de jugements ou de sous-entendus ambigus. Le pays de la liberté porte bien son nom dans ce domaine. Vous êtes qui vous voulez et tout le monde s’en fout. A Paris, c’est toute une autre histoire…

Enfin, l’air, le ciel, le soleil… le temps. La grisaille a ses charmes pour une durée limitée. Et quand le soleil pointe son nez sur Paris, la pollution guette derrière. Non, décidément, NYC a tout bon, la géographie, l’océan, le climat, mais aussi l’urbanisme chaotique qui fait qu’on voit le ciel d’un peu partout, et le plafond bas reste juste un souvenir dans la pénombre hivernale d’Île de France.

Posted in Stories from the city | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Hello New York

After 20 years in the most beautiful city in the world, time to discover something new, something different, exciting and challenging – full of surprises, New York City.

This blog is a “passe-temps”, dedicated to the genuine discovery and enjoyment of the city through its streets, people, places; its ways, habits, parties; all related under a very subjective and “parisien” eye.

Depending on the themes, languages of posts might vary – from English to French and Bulgarian. Apologies for the inconvenience, this remains a recreational and personal adventure, so.. enjoy!

Posted in Stories from the city | Tagged , , , , ,